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A walk down Christmas Tree Lane

Residents of Fulton Street prepare for the annual holiday tradition

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Seventy-five years ago, the residents of Fulton Street set out Christmas trees along the street and strung up lights from the 1500 block to the 1700 block. When the lights came on, one of the city's oldest traditions was born: Christmas Tree Lane.

Every year, Fulton Street lights up with a set of trees and house decorations that glow for about a week before and after Christmas. Some display traditional Christian decorations, others celebrate a Jewish heritage while some remain secular in nature. Visitors come from all over the city and beyond to observe the spectacle.

Homeowners have kept the ritual alive year after year, halting only for conservation efforts during World War II. The street's residents organize themselves into a committee that delegates the various responsibilities that go into getting the street ready for the holidays. People take turns handling each task from year to year, and each year, the whole street lights up.

This year's chairperson, Susan McDonnell, said that it's a large group effort to get everything going, but it always gets done because the residents are really passionate about the tradition.

"We have someone get the 'No Parking' signs from the city; we have someone that ensures the city lights change from white to red; someone organizes the coffee we have each year for all of the neighbors on the day we out up the decorations. It's really a great way to bring the neighborhood together," she said.

All of the houses seem to participate, and she said that they even expanded Christmas Tree Lane by a few houses this year.

"I think it's sort of understood that you're getting into this when you move here," she said.

Larry Christensen moved to Fulton Street in 1980, and he was caught off guard.

"We had no idea when we bought the house," he said. "Everyone just gets drawn up into the holiday season, the lights and decorations."

Traditionally, when a new family moves in, the one that is leaving passes on a set of old-fashioned Christmas lights so that the holiday festivities can continue, McDonnell said. The committee also sends around a flier to prepare the neighbors for the decorating. Some homes simply string up Christmas lights, while others have a theme. Themes vary from the nativity scene to the Nutcracker. Others, such as McDonnell's neighbors, use the displays to promote something like a literacy campaign.

"My neighbor has replicated pages of 'The Night Before Christmas,'" she said. "She's the founder of an organization called Bring Me A Book, so it's very fitting that her display features a book."

This year, Christmas Tree Lane lights up on Dec. 12. The displays turn on at 5 p.m., and there's guaranteed to be a parade of onlookers driving through the street.


What: Christmas Tree Lane

Date: Saturday, Dec. 12 through Dec. 31

Time: 5-11 p.m. each night

Where: Fulton Street, Palo Alto (1705 Fulton St. works as a destination address)

Cost: Free

Info: Christmas Tree Lane or Christmas Tree Lane's Facebook page


Matt Rupel is an editorial intern at the Palo Alto Weekly.

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19 people like this
Posted by Paly Alum
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Dec 11, 2015 at 10:52 am

There are less houses that participate than in decades past. Some houses do absolutely nothing, or very, very little. Really, it's not difficult to just get a few statues or Star Shower, inflatable, or something, just something. Neighbors should want to participate. It's really disappointing now.

16 people like this
Posted by I'll have what she is having
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 11, 2015 at 5:36 pm

Paly alum-- not everyone celebrates Xmas. Also it causes too much traffic and too much noise. Plus all the moving violations ( driving without lights etc)

24 people like this
Posted by downtowner
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 11, 2015 at 11:34 pm

I was driving down Bryant the other night between Tennyson and Oregon and was very impressed with the Christmas lights there! They also seem to have banded together and have trees in front of each house, and some houses have truly impressive displays. Maybe they should be Christmas Tree Boulevard?

8 people like this
Posted by Paly Alum
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Dec 11, 2015 at 11:51 pm

[Post removed.]

19 people like this
Posted by Old School PA
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Dec 12, 2015 at 2:10 am

I grew up on Fulton Street, and "Christmas Tree Lane" isn't as merry as you might think. I'm honestly glad some of the folks aren't doing it; it means the revolution finally happened. See, when I was growing up there was a "Christmas Tree Lane Committee," basically a self-appointed cabal of entitled Fulton Street residents who ran the show and would badger everyone into decorating their houses in the prescribed method. My family (and the neighbors on either side of us) hated doing it, but social pressure is a funny thing and the cabal members were like sledgehammers. The cabal would order a huge load of trees -- enough to fill the street -- and you were expected the troop over to one of the cabal's houses [portion removed] and bring your cabal-assigned pot-luck dish to their coffee breakfast. You then paid for your trees (plus a "processing fee"), hauled them back to your place, stuck them in the ground and then strung up the lights. Only you had to be careful, as the cabal had stringent decoration guidelines and they would descend on you [portion removed] if one bulb was out of place or your décor was either too subtle or too flashy. You then had to pay for the extra electricity for several weeks while a procession of zombie-like cars endlessly slid by and prevented any parking. I appreciate inebriated carolers as much as the next person, but when you get them every ten minutes and they become angry when you don't answer the door, it gets old. Oh, and if you managed to fend off the cabal's feral screaming and not participate, the cabal would *do it for you* -- meaning they would put up the trees in front of your house and run an electrical line from their house to make sure that nobody -- NOBODY -- didn't do as they said. Enforced merriment sucks, y'all. Hopefully things have since changed. Oh, and if it makes you upset that people aren't taking part, just pretend it's all part of the War on Christmas conspiracy and boycott it as you would Starbuck's red cups.

40 people like this
Posted by Never Mind
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 12, 2015 at 9:48 am

Whatever happened to religious freedom, anyway? Is it ONLY for non-Christians and non-religious?

And what's wrong with Christmas being a non-religious, family holiday centered around children? That's what it has been for the last few decades, anyway!

That's okay, we don't need Fulton St anymore, anyway. Bryant is doing a great job of replacing it.

7 people like this
Posted by Gunn alum
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Dec 12, 2015 at 12:57 pm

Compelling people to,take part in something they do not want to is selfish, Paly alum. [Portion removed due to removal of referenced comment.]

9 people like this
Posted by slh
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Dec 12, 2015 at 9:11 pm

Fulton street is not what it used to be, unfortunately. There is nothing wrong with carrying on a nice tradition. People in this community can be so ridiculous. Putting out a few festive decorations so children can continue to see the magic of a light filled christmas tree lane shouldn't be a big deal. I'm not christian, but like many other folks I enjoy the spirit of the holiday season. Why not participate in a positive, community event for kids? Thanks for letting folks know about Bryant - good to know.

12 people like this
Posted by I Wish
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 13, 2015 at 1:35 pm

People have gotten so selfish, etiquette is dead. People only think of their own happiness these days. If I could afford to live on that street, I would love to participate. Ditch the trees, that's too much work. But there are many other easy ways to decorate and they don't cost much.

22 people like this
Posted by Christian
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Dec 13, 2015 at 3:32 pm

I think it is the most wonderful time of the year, but not because I am Christian and celebrate Christmas.

There is absolutely no evidence that Jesus was born on December 25. It is of course a traditional holiday piggybacking on a pagan mid winter festival. The first Christmas trees were a German tradition and brought into England with the arrival of Prince Albert after his marriage to Queen Victoria. Many of the traditions we now associate with Christmas festivities are from Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Prior to that it was mainly a religious holy day with perhaps some charitable aspects.

So now we have a commercial time called "The Holidays". I thought it started with Thanksgiving, but nowadays seems to arrive a few days after Halloween. The bombardment of shopping bargains seems to be the most commercial aspect of the whole 6 weeks.

To have a few places where we can get away from the commercialism, the spending and the busyness of the season is a nice relief. I for one have appreciated Christmas Tree Lane and appreciate what the residents are doing. I try to respect their privacy while enjoying what they contribute to the community. Yes we have sung Christmas carols while standing under one of the lights. I wouldn't actually expect the residents to open their doors to each group of singers. But I think that the many people who walk along the street, soaking in the atmosphere, do enjoy the carolers. I see families with children and other groups having a wonderful laid back time.

Thank you to the residents who provide this each year. There will of course be the grinches, those who say Bah Humbug, and those who are so PC that they can't bring themselves to think of anything so religious as putting up a Santa, let alone a nativity scene. For those who wonder what Christmas is really all about and those who try to look on Christianity as one of those nasty things that other people should keep private, I think it is a shame. We should be able to understand each other's beliefs. Whether it is saying Happy Diwali, Happy Hannukah, Happy Ramadan, Happy Kwanzaa, or yes Merry Christmas, then let us celebrate our diversity, look into the meaning of each festival, try and understand each other's beliefs and yes either enjoy or stay away from Christmas Tree Lane, we should use this time of Goodwill, Peace on Earth, and as the song says, "Let there be peace on Earth, and let it begin with me".

Merry Whatever and a happy new year.

27 people like this
Posted by rosie
a resident of Walter Hays School
on Dec 13, 2015 at 6:35 pm

Wow, I remember walking down Christmas Tree Lane after holiday dinner with all of our relatives, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandma, and parents, what wonderful memories from the 50s and 60s, 70s Christmas dinner was not complete with that stroll..the smell of cool air, the stars out, wood smoke from the chimneys, and around the corner from our Nana's house, lived the Stones, the Bulls, Thomas', and more! Kids I went to Walter Hays with. 55 years later, about a week ago, I was in Palo Alto helping care for my aging stepfather, and I drove my daughter down Fulton. We rolled down the windows, and I imagined the long-ago strolls, the wood smoke, the slowly-driving cars, sometimes would turn their headlights off to see the bright displays on each yard, and home. What a treasured family memory for me. The real Palo Alto.

19 people like this
Posted by Day for Gifting
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 14, 2015 at 9:54 am

It seems there is too much religion in Christmas!

It seems religious freedom is only for non-Christians and non-citizens of the US!

What began as a Christian religious holiday has expanded and evolved to become an open, all-involving, inclusive day of giving, gifting, and enjoying families--especially children.

Let's leave the religion out of it. It is only divisive.

6 people like this
Posted by Christian
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Dec 14, 2015 at 4:07 pm

I beg to differ with the last poster.

Rather than religion being divisive, I would say that it is intolerance which is divisive. Intolerance I think comes more often from lack of education and understanding as to what makes us different. I would think that pretending there is nothing religious about the traditions of this time of year, it makes more sense to understand what the different traditions are and where they come from. This would make us all more tolerant and welcoming rather than trying to hide them. I would think that this would make us accept each other's differences rather divide.

I consider myself having a much richer knowledge of people by understanding the different religions. I have a better world view because I know a little about Diwali, Ramadan, Kwanzaa, Hanukah and Chinese New Year and others. I can celebrate with my diverse friends and join in their celebrations with them, if invited and I can invite them to celebrate Christmas with me. I am a richer human being for understanding what my friends believe rather than feel intimidated or alienated by them.

Yes, people of many beliefs join in the traditions of decorating for Christmas and gift giving on 24th or 25th. It doesn't seem to threaten their personal beliefs. Why should understanding more about the different faiths threaten anyone. Pretending this time of year has nothing to do with religion is more likely to offend intelligence rather than offend the questioning human mind and lead to intolerance rather than acceptance.

5 people like this
Posted by OPar
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 14, 2015 at 5:37 pm

I'm with Christian on this one. I see no point in hollowing out Christmas and depriving it of its religious aspect--something that matters deeply to many. I see no reason why it can't be a religious holiday for some, a family holiday for others and both for others.

There are many winter holidays that focus on bringing light into the darkest part of the year. I don't celebrate most of them, but I have friends who do. I like learning about the different celebrations and sending the appropriate holiday greeting.

I can see that being on Fulton St. when you don't want to do the Xmas Tree lane thing could feel like a lot of pressure, but, honestly, I wouldn't move there if it bothered me that much. I like the idea of getting together and creating something that brings so many people joy. I walk along it every year, noting the small changes in design and I love seeing the wide variety of people enjoying the lights and color--and I know for a fact some of those pedestrians aren't Christians (since they're my friends.)

Palo Alto's been losing its sense of community spirit in recent years (one poster wrote that we were a community, but we've become a commodity and I think that nails it.)--Fulton Street is one of the community spirit things that remains and I hope it remains.

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